NAIROBI, Kenya — Is this an international feminist movement that is being launched, reborn or solidified as many are saying here? Is it business as usual for the United Nations, that business being anything but feminist, with women's rights being shoved aside in favor of the politics of rhetoric, confrontation and one-upmanship?
There is not, it seems, anyone connected with the events of the past few weeks here who has not been asking and answering these sorts of questions. Often they are concluding that their differing perceptions are not mutually exclusive.
The world meeting for non-governmental organizations to discuss the close of the U. N. Decade for Women ended last week. The official two-week U. N. conference to review and appraise the achievements of the Decade for Women ends Friday.
Thousands of the 14,000 women who attended the non-governmental organizations forum at the University of Nairobi have returned to their homes or gone on safari. They ended their forum without marching on the U. N. delegates across town, as had been urged by one ad hoc group.
Dame Nita Barrow of Barbados, the forum convenor, had talked them out of it, asking that they not embarrass the Kenyan government that required, and enforced strictly, permits for public marches and demonstrations.
They had wanted to challenge the delegates to respond to their concerns, present them with petitions and resolutions that had come out of their workshops or organizing efforts, and urge them not to get bogged down in traditional U. N. issues at the expense of women's issues. And, at the same time, some of women who wanted to march, had some political demands of their own for statements about international tensions, such as apartheid, the status of Palestinians, of migrant workers and refugees.
They did not march. But now they are lobbying the delegates and watchdogging the proceedings. A considerable number of Forum women remain here, many of them leaders of non-governmental organizations that have consultative or observer status with the U. N.
To step into the plenary hall where the line-up of nation after nation has been delivering status reports, or replying to another nation's insults or challenges, is to hear women's condition discussed. However, it is often to hear women's condition described as oppressed and problematic the world over with the exception of the country at the podium--where enormous progress, even though it wasn't needed, has been made. Or if problems are acknowledged to exist at home, they are often blamed entirely on outside forces.
In addition to the plenary session, two committees have been debating paragraph by paragraph, at times word by word, the central document of the conference, the "forward-looking strategies," a plan of action for the years 1986-2000. As the conference began, about 87 of its 372 paragraphs were "bracketed," unresolved at regional preparatory meetings. They have been adopting, amending, entertaining new resolutions, and often, referring matters to a closed negotiating committee. Their deadline was midnight, Wednesday, and few people thought that committee--where most of the more controversial sections are under consideration, such as women and children under apartheid, Palestinian women and children, and resolutions on terrorism and Afghan refugees--could possibly reach consensus.
Women are proving that longstanding political tensions and grievances concern them as much as their male colleagues. (Alan Keyes, the only male in the U.S. delegation, and ambassador the to U. N. Economic and Social Council, is the main U. S. negotiator for this committee although Maureen Reagan, the chair, is often in the room, and has said that nothing is negotiated without her sign-off.)
For all of the acrimony and stalling, however, even here progress is made, paragraphs and sections adopted, consensus reached. The members are down for the count now on the subjects everyone knew would be difficult from the start.
In fact, few here are calling the conference or the decade a failure. Quite the opposite. And among those most positive, are those who have been most involved for a long time.
"I hope we reach consensus," Kathy Bonk, an attorney for the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense Fund in Washington said. "But even if we walked out of here with those unbracketed paragraphs, there's a lot there we could work with. It's encouraging. . . . In a bigger perspective, this is truly an international women's rights movement. History has been made here. Women are committed to seeing it happen."
To understand what has been going on in Nairobi, it is necessary to know what has been happening in the decade.